Kitchn Love Letters

My Mom’s Clever Trick for Making Vegetables Taste Amazing (I’ve Been Doing It for 25 Years!)

published May 19, 2024
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Seasoned string beans.
Credit: Su-Jit Lin

My mom was a lot of wonderful things — especially in the kitchen. It was there that, under her guidance, I learned to grow plants from seed, make my own paper, and try out new recipes, tweaking them to perfection through repetition and annotation. Luscious crispy-edged pancakes! Silky from-scratch mantou buns! Comforting Italian meatballs! Hand-strained soy milk! We had a front-row seat to her creations, and were often invited to take part in her experiments. We learned how to adapt them to fit our own preferences and, eventually, could make anything we wanted to eat.

That was during the leisurely days of summer, when she didn’t have to rush up to four kids to school, work at the family restaurant, and somehow still find time to clean, do laundry, tend the garden, and feed us an after-school meal before shuffling us off to the restaurant for the dinner shift, where my chef dad would take over child-feeding duties.

As much as we loved the results of our experiments (and miss them to this day), now that she’s gone it’s her four-ingredient, unbelievably versatile go-to formula for cooking fresh vegetables that is used most in our daily lives.

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

The 2-Ingredient Vegetable Seasoning I Swear By

The combination of these two seasoning ingredients brings out the purest, greenest flavors in fresh vegetables of any kind. You can use them on leafy greens, crucifers like broccoli or cauliflower, green beans … you name it. All you need to cook an umami-packed, light, but wholly satisfying vegetable dish is the prepped veggie, olive oil, and these two ingredients.

  • Chinese dried shrimp: Traditionally, these are small dehydrated shrimp typically sold loose in bulk at Chinese apothecary shops like the ones in Flushing, New York. They’re also available in Asian supermarkets like H Mart, Hong Kong Supermarket, Nam Dae Mun, and 99 Ranch Market, among others. They’ve gotten a bit pricier per pound than when I was young, but the good news is that you really only ever need two at a time to get their point across.
  • Three Crabs Fish Sauce: Many chefs live and die by premium (and last year’s winner in The Kitchn Grocery Essentials) Red Boat Fish Sauce, while home cooks on a budget will opt for Squid brand. But for our family, it’s always been Three Crabs or bust. This highly recommended fish sauce is savory, salty, and not at all fishy in taste nor aroma. It adds a nice char to stir-fries or sautés; melts into vegetables, enhancing their flavor; and can even be used as a light broth, if you’re going for a steamed texture.

How to Use This 2-Ingredient Seasoning with (Almost) Any Vegetable

Cooking vegetables her way is not only second nature to me, but also so easy that it’s my default method. You’ll see what I mean as soon as you give it a try!

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

First, I set a large, high-rimmed pan like my favorite nonstick sauté pan on medium-high heat, and drizzle olive oil into it immediately with two dried shrimp. This cold start allows the flavors of the shrimp to infuse the oil and the sizzling is a great indicator of when you’re ready to toss in your veggies. Give it a good stir halfway through heating. 

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

Once the shrimp get toasty and you can see the oil bubbling, throw in your washed and prepped vegetables (it’s OK if they’re still wet; you’ll get a nice sizzle), and turn the heat to high. Stir and flip them until coated with oil, and add a good two to four generous glugs of fish sauce (or more, to taste) for an entire pan’s worth of vegetables once they start to brighten. Stir to distribute and let it get a bit of a sear. 

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

Add enough water to the pan — typically until it’s a quarter-inch full — to stop them from caramelizing further. The steam will cook the vegetables faster and to the desired level of tenderness. It also mellows out the fish sauce.

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

Leave vegetables with a high-water content, like spinach, zucchini, snake squash, cucumbers, Napa cabbage, and Shanghai bok choy, uncovered and cook until the liquid has mostly evaporated. For a bit of broth or light sauce, add another glug of fish sauce and cook only until the greens are tender-crisp. Same goes for the ones I like slightly charred (green beans, broccoli, sugar snap peas), even caramelized, like Brussels sprouts. Just make sure to stir them frequently. For other vegetables, like cauliflower or carrots, I cook them partially covered with a lid, allowing half the steam to escape while they cook all the way through. 

No matter the vegetable, this method results in bright, lightly seasoned greens that somehow taste more like themselves — only better.

Buy: Wei-Chuan Farm Dried Shrimp, $9.49 for 3.5 ounces at Instacart; Three Crabs Fish Sauce, $5.99 for 10.1 ounces at Instacart

Have a delicious grocery tip you learned from your mom?